Managing in Complexity

As our markets and technologies get more complex, we need new models to get work done. For instance, we know that creative work can yield more innovation, yet our workplaces usually stifle creativity. Many of our practices are still premised on work being simple or complicated. Simple systems are easily knowable, whereas complicated systems, while not simple, are still knowable through analysis. These can be easily managed. However, complex systems are not fully knowable, though they can be partially understood through interaction with them. This is antithetical to many workplace control protocols.

Every day, jobs and work are getting automated and outsourced. If companies want to remain competitive in the global market, they need to focus on complex and creative work. Much of complex work is in exception-handling and when exceptions are the rule, rigid rules must become the exception.

We have to understand complex adaptive systems and develop work structures that let us focus our efforts on learning as we work in order to continuously develop next practices. In a knowledge-intensive and creative workplace the role of leadership becomes supportive and inspirational rather than directive. Artificial boundaries that limit collaboration and communication only serve to drag projects, and companies, down and create opportunities for more agile competitors.

A new mindset toward work is required. Frameworks like hyper-connected pattern-seeking or networked unmanagement can promote new perspectives on what valued work really should be. This can be fostered in a culture of perpetual Beta. Perpetual Beta means we accept never getting to the final release of our work, and that our learning will never stop. Organizations need to realize they will never reach some future point where everything stabilizes and they don’t need to learn or do anything new.

In additional to a new mindset, workers need autonomy. But many are not ready for it. We are trained early in life to look to authority for direction in learning and work. The idea that there is a right answer or an expert with the right answer begins in our schools. Too often, the message from the workplace continues to be that good employees wait for their managers to tell them what to do. This is counter-productive in dealing with complexity and working in perpetual Beta. It also destroys creativity. When we move away from a linear “design it first, then build it” mindset, we can then engage everyone in critical and systems thinking. Workers must be passionate, adaptive, innovative, and collaborative. Autonomy is the just beginning.

Fostering autonomy starts by looking at work differently. For example, dropping the notion of being paid for time is one way to start this change. An hourly wage implies that people are interchangeable. But no two minds are the same. Being paid for time fosters neither autonomy nor agility. There are many other human resource practices should be questioned and dropped, such as job competencies, or one-size-fits all training programs.

The new networked workplace requires both collaboration and cooperation. Complex problems cannot be solved alone. Tacit knowledge flows in networks through social learning. Learner autonomy is a foundation for effective social learning. It is the lubricant for a more agile organization. Agility becomes a necessity as we deal with increasing complexity. In order to develop the necessary emergent practices to handle complexity we therefore need to cultivate the diversity and autonomy of each worker. We also must foster richer and deeper connections which can be built through meaningful conversations. This is social learning in the workplace.

Change and complexity are becoming the norm in our work. We already see this with increasing numbers of freelancers and contractors. Any work where complexity is not the norm will be of diminishing value. Embracing complexity, and even chaos, is where the future of work lies.

As traditional core activities get automated or outsourced, almost all high value work will be done at the outer edge of organizations. At the fuzzy edge of the organization life is complex and even chaotic. On this periphery, where things are less homogenous, there is more diversity and more opportunities for innovation. Individuals, project teams and organizations have to move operations to the edge to continue learning and developing. In this century a greater percentage of workers will be moving to the edge. The core will be managed by very few internal staff. What does this mean for management? No matter what model one prefers, it will have to be more open, networked and cooperative. Are you ready to move to the edge?


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9 Responses to “Managing in Complexity”

  1. Jesse Martin

    Having worked in the area of psychology in learning, I find the idea that the concept of “there is a right answer or an expert with the right answer” being completely wrong, somewhat discomforting. In the world of education today, the most common mantra that I hear is that there is no right or wrong way to teach people. Coming from a psychological background, statements like that are simply false. There are numerous right ways to foster learning, but there are just as many wrong ways to do it, and they are as common in education as they are in workplace training.

    There are numerous psychological principles about how to foster learning, based on robust and sound research, that are routinely ignored by practitioners. An example is the principle of empowerment leading to increased motivation to learn. This is a basic principle that I see ignored in the effort to control the learning process. Another principle is that people need to both believe that they can succeed at the learning task, and believe that it will be useful to them in accomplishing their long term goals in order to be motivated to learn. On the cognitive side, educational or training designers routinely ignore the principle of cognitive overload when putting together materials or designing learning modules.

    The idea that there are no right answers suggest that there are no correct principles, and I think that is the wrong message to send out.

    • Harold Jarche

      Discomfort is sometimes a byproduct of learning. Saying that my statements are “simply false” is a tad much though, Jesse.

      Psychology, like all fields today, is evolving, based on new data and research. What was “true” 50 years ago may be “false” today. But principles, like models, can be useful. There is a saying that all models are flawed, but some are useful. While there may be “numerous right ways to foster learning”, there is no right way. You also took that statement a bit out of context: “The idea that there is a right answer or an expert with the right answer begins in our schools.” It is the idea of expertise embodied in a person, or that of a single true answer that is the problem. It does not foster critical thinking. This idea of “right answers” then makes it difficult to understand complex systems, which can never be 100% knowable.

  2. Jesse Martin

    Point given,.

    What you say about the “right answers” has much to answer for in our current system of education. If there is anything that stifles learning (at a higher level) it is the idea there is only one right answer.

    I think I was just lashing out after a week of difficult interactions with heavily traditional teaching committees at various levels who see their primary role as maintaining things as they have always been with no recognition that evidenced principles can show us more effective and enjoyable ways of doing things.

  3. Carol Anderson

    I agree with your perspective that HR policies and practices are standing in our way. I’ve been writing quite a bit about that myself, being an HR professional who sees how effective the profession should be, but is not. The challenge, at least in the US, is that regulatory activity weighs down HR and keeps them so busy that they can’t answer the real question – are people doing what they need to be doing effectively.

    As an example, wage hour laws prescribe hourly pay for a large majority of jobs. The laws are complicated, managers rarely are as knowledgeable as they should be, and HR becomes the problem solver for a business issue that truly has no value back to the organization.

    That said, an effective leader can engage hourly folks in critically looking at process and work, innovating and navigating ambiguity. But it takes an effective leader, and a system that supports the leader. I wish I could say there were a lot of those, but I really can’t.

  4. Bas Reus

    Hi Harold,

    Glad I came along your blog again. Great writing as always.
    After reading, I got stuck with your statement that on the periphery, things are less homogeneous. Do you refer here to the variety of all individuals in the complete periphery? Because when people work together in the periphery on complex tasks, it helps to bring together ‘specialists’. And specialists are not generalists, often lacking diverse connections, which leaves them at the periphery.

    When people come together who are heterogeneous, they differ in their characteristics, they tend to become more central in the network, leaving the periphery.

    So where I agree on your statement that complex work is done at the periphery, I tend to disagree on the homogeneous argument. Homogeneous connections between people makes them less central to the core.

    Of course it depends on the definition of core and periphery. I look at these from a social network perspective.

    Kind regards,

  5. Bas Reus

    Hi Harold, that explains the difference. I’m biased to organizations, not including the outside ecosystem. And also biased due to core-periphery literature. In my view the core is better connected, which allows connections to be more diverse. Which does not mean the core is the formal center of the organization. Thanks for sharing the picture.


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